By Christoph Meyer
We must not row the canoe — this is Gewai and Sowegi's task; we are guests. We sit on the platform of the outrigger doing nothing, while the mangroves at the edge of the lagoon pass endlessly. The tropical midday sun is burning.
After one and a half hours, we turn into a shady backwater, which leads into the jungle under a roof of green nypha palms. We leave the canoe and continue on foot. We pass through thorn-protected sago palms and gigantic trees with large buttress roots. The brown water is everywhere, rising to our knees. I enjoy walking barefoot, but the mosquitoes are hard to bear. There are swarms of them everywhere, little affected by our insect repellent.
This is the swamp forest where the wokabaut somil working group from Bau village operates. Young men are hauling the motor and the latticed steel track of the sawmill deep into the rainforest, where one big tree is cut. The work is arduous, manoeuvring the log into the right position, fixing the saw above it and sawing it board by board. Later, all the timber is carried on their shoulders out of the forest, one hour's walk back to the lagoon, where the outriggers are waiting.
Why don't they just build a road, get the logs out of the forest with caterpillars and saw the timber elsewhere?
We have seen that kind of timber harvesting. At the side of a road near the devastated remains of a primary rainforest some hours' walk west of Lae, "selective logging" activities began recently for the third time. Wide tracks were broken blindly through the bush; what remained was ploughed soil, shredded green vines and many badly injured young trees. Easy to recognise were the old tracks of the bulldozers from years before, because on the compacted floor nothing grew except grass and shrub.
Half to three-quarters of a tropical forest are normally destroyed by this kid of "selective logging", where only certain old trees are taken. Afterwards, vines often cover everything and suffocate the remaining trees.
Then there is clear-felling. In the Gogol area, a mix of too many types of trees makes selective logging unprofitable, so the Japanese company JANT has clear-felled more than 60,000 hectares over 17 years, for woodchips. The ecosystem has broken down completely. Many parts of the area have been deforested and converted into swampy Nile grass land. On the ruined soil, no gardening is possible. The water from the rivers is unfit for
drinking. The people suffer from sores which do not heal.
The Forestry Department of PNG has put 1.5 million hectares of the coastal forest — nearly all of it — under concession and offered it to the logging companies. This is in spite of little tax being paid by these companies; they simply never declare profits.
Nevertheless, the coastal forest is not yet lost. The final decision lies with the landowners: 97% of the land is traditionally owned by the people. It can not be sold; only the right of use can be given away in return for compensation. So if we are looking at future protection of the bush, we have to ask what the landowners in the villages really want.
Traditionally the people in the villages were always fighting against nature: against the ever-growing bush, against fungus and mould, against earthquakes, landslides and thunderstorms, against terrible skin diseases and malaria. There was often little understanding that nature must be taken care of.
Why is there no garden fruit growing in the clear-felled areas of the Gogol Valley? Why have the fish disappeared off the coast of Rabaul? Why are children born disabled in the goldminers' area at Bulolo River, and why is the number of people born with brain damage increasing? Slowly but steadily the relationship becomes known.
Bau is built in a traditional and simple way, though there are water taps in the village yard. They were installed by the village people with money saved over the years for a permanent church; after becoming aware that water from the swamp was not good for health, the people changed their priorities.
We got to know about Bau through Sasa Kokino in Lae. Sasa had worked with a company called PNG Forest Products, which runs a sawmill and plywood factory. The company granted him two years' study in London. When he came back, he saw his home village, Bau, with new eyes. He saw the destruction of nature by too much slash and burn. And he became aware of the imminent catastrophe if his own company "selectively logged" as planned in the forests around his village.
Sasa quit his job and started the Village Development Trust (VDT). Its aim is to force the big logging companies out by offering an alternative source of money to the villages. This long-term source is "ecoforestry" in association with the "wokabaut somil".
There is growing awareness about the devastating consequences of heavy logging in the country. A number of non-government organisations are telling the people from concession areas what
the realities are. For example, a Landowners' Awareness Conference was held in Madang, at which landowners were invited to see the logging sites, and consequences of such operations. Since this conference, offers from logging companies have been rejected by most of the village people.
But how long can this refusal last when there is a strong wish for development but no other way of getting money?
The wokabaut somil was donated to the villagers, who, in return, are refusing the offers of a big logging company. The villagers who work the sawmill are trained by VDT. The landowners are able to cut their own timber and may use it for housing or sell it. The number of cut trees per hectare is strictly limited, so there will be little more damage than would occur naturally.
When we visited places where they had cut two years ago, we could see a small clearing, but no lasting destruction. Young trees, some of them primary forest species, were doing well. Regeneration is very fast when the ecosystem is intact.
The wokabaut somil in Bau has been in operation two years. The first few containers of tropical timber have been sold in the United Kingdom under the label "Eco Timber". The profit for a cubic metre of sawn timber is very much higher than any logging company would pay for it.
The people of Bau and the surrounding villages are full of enthusiasm with the idea of using the forest wisely so that their children also may harvest timber in the future. Now they want to test regeneration methods like composting and biological gardening to bring degraded soil back into production instead of slashing and burning new areas of forest. The (Australian) Rainforest Information Centre is assisting them.
Bau is a first step towards sustainable harvesting of timber. Under the label "Eco-Timber", sustainably harvested timber will be sold on a large scale. At a meeting of rainforest groups and eco-trading companies a year ago, a Forest Stewardship Council was set up to create a network of similar projects all over the world.